The Latin American Film Scene with Richard Peña

InterviewChris Yong-GarciaComment

It would be no understatement to say that Richard Peña has transformed the landscape of cinema. Peña’s taste for film knows no geographical bounds. He has a true talent for exploring global cinema’s most uncharted terrains, bringing back the best foreign films to American viewers. During his twenty-five year tenure as the director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center the film aficionado introduced the world to a vast array of films representing various countries, from China to Iran to Argentina, helping to launch the careers of directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, Pedro Almodóvar, Edward Yang, and Bernardo Bertolucci.

Born in 1953, Peña grew up in East Harlem and Queens, the son of a Spanish mother and a Puerto Rican father. He fell in love with film at an early age; in 1965 at the age of 12 he attended his first New York Film Festival. He has returned every year since, missing only one festival in 1974 while traveling through Latin America.

Peña, who reportedly views an average of 2,700 films a year, graduated from Harvard in 1975, where he specialized in Latin American literature and history. He later earned a Masters degree in film from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Prior to joining the Film Society at Lincoln Center in 1988, Peña taught film studies at Berkeley and later directed the Art Institute of Chicago’s Film Center between 1981 and 1988. Peña is also a professor at Columbia University, where he teaches international cinema and film theory, founding the MA program in Film Studies: History, Theory and Criticism.

You’ve mentioned that after 25 years of intense work at the Film Society of Lincoln Center you want to slow down a bit and do some traveling on your own terms. Are there any specific places that you are planning to visit?

Actually, I think what I would most like to do is to go places and stay for periods of time, usually as a university professor. I will be teaching in France for four weeks this summer, and am exploring possibilities in Brazil and Japan as well.

You’ve also mentioned that you have a desire to teach abroad. What would be your dream city to live and teach in?

I’ve often mentioned to friends and family that my ideal life would be four months every year in Tokyo, four months in Paris, and four months in New York.

While at Harvard, you chose to write your honors thesis on Brazilian and Argentinian cinema, after spending a year traveling throughout Latin America. How did that trip affect you? Did it trigger a new career trajectory? Which cities did you visit?

At that time—the early/mid-Seventies—the academic discipline of film studies was really in its infancy in the US; my trip affected me in that afterwards, I knew that whatever I did in life, it would be connected to film. I wasn’t sure, though, what that would or could be.

While traveling in Latin America in 1974/75, I spent about 5 months in Rio, 1.5 months in Sao Paulo, and then about 2 months in Buenos Aires. I then spent about two months traveling from Buenos Aires to Mexico City, where I spent a bit less than a month before heading back to New York.

How do you feel that Latin American cinema has evolved during the last decade? Do you think that there is any specific country taking the lead on producing great work?

For me, the past decade or so of Latin American film production has been, artistically, the most interesting decade since the Sixties. The current movement can be said to have started in Argentine at the end of the 1990s, but soon there was exciting new work coming from Mexico, Chile, and other countries as well. Something new about this current LA film wave is that it is indeed region-wide, with countries such as Colombia, Peru and Uruguay now producing important films.

You grew up in East Harlem and Queens, the son of a Puerto Rican father and Spanish mother, and I imagine that there were always delicious foods and flavors emerging from the kitchen. How would you describe your relationship to food back then? Any special dish that you can recall?

In my family, the food obsession was especially acute because my Castilian grandfather was a trained chef who worked at the Hotel Pierre. Sunday lunches were extraordinarily sumptuous affairs that lasted hours. Everything was great, but I still maintain my abuela made the best arroz con leche I’ve ever eaten.

I think that there is an interesting juxtaposition to be found between film and food: both help us to develop a better understanding of the world and its places; both provide us with a taste of what a country or city is really all about. Is your taste for food as sophisticated and adventurous as your taste for cinema? Do you cook?

I love to cook, and indeed I’ve discovered over the years that many filmmakers are accomplished chefs.  I’d like to believe that I have a pretty adventurous culinary palette, although being vegetarian does restrict my culinary choices somewhat.

How did you become fluent in Spanish? Were you raised speaking it at home from an early age? Are you fluent in any other languages?

We mixed Spanish and English pretty regularly at home, and I consider myself pretty much bilingual, although I write much more easily in English. I speak Portuguese and French fairly well, and also get along in Italian, German and Russian.

How do you relate to your Hispanic/Latin heritage and how does this intersect with your relationship with film? Do you see yourself as the “Latino” who has brought the best cinema of the world to all New Yorkers?

Even though I grew up in neighborhoods that always had significant Latino populations, I think I always grew up feeling that as a Latino I was always an “outsider” to American culture. At home we would always speak about “los americanos,’ which meant people who weren’t us.

I think when I was traveling in Latin America and I began discovering all this wonderful Latin American cinema, I became aware of how much standard film histories—the few that existed back the—simply ignored Latin American film production, a cultural prejudice I was already aware of from my studies of literature. Part of my desire to promote and teach Latin American cinema was later transferred to my interest in Chinese cinema, and then Iranian cinema, and then Korean cinema...and so forth. I think those feelings of “outsiderness” always encouraged me to look beyond what the authorities were offering me.

Let’s say that it’s your birthday and your family would like to take you out for a special dinner in the city. Where would they take you?

Who’s paying? If I’m with my wife and three children, it’s sometimes hard to find a cuisine we all want at that moment. I’m a big fan of Indian food, but once you’ve had really good Indian food, it’s hard to eat what you can find in most neighborhoods. My wife and I enjoy Ethiopian food, which we often ate when she was doing her medical residency in Washington DC.

If there were an intergalactic film festival and you were asked to submit three films from Latin America or Spain, which films would you send?

Hmmm. I’m assuming this is a way of getting me to name the three greatest Latin American films/Spanish films of all time. Very hard to do. If I sent them VIRIDIANA (1961, Luis Bunuel, Spain/Mexico), TERRA EM TRANSE (1967, Glauber Rocha, Brazil) and LA CIENAGA (2001, Lucrecia Martel, Argentina), I think they’d be pretty happy--and impressed.

Photo by Julie Cunnah.